Your heart is a muscular organ that pumps blood around your body. It’s divided into two sides. The right side of your heart pumps blood to your lungs to get oxygen and the left side pumps oxygenated blood around your body. There are four chambers inside your heart – two on the left side and two on the right side.
The two smaller upper chambers are called the atria and the two larger lower chambers are called the ventricles.
There are four valves in your heart. The valves act like ‘gates’, which open and close. This makes sure that your blood travels in one direction through your heart and stops blood from leaking back against this flow.
Two are between your atria and your ventricles. The mitral valve is on the left side and the tricuspid valve is on the right side.
Two are in the arteries leaving your heart. The aortic valve is on the left side and the pulmonary valve is on the right side.
Heart valve disease
Heart valve disease occurs when there is a problem with one of your valves.
- Valve stenosis – this is when your valve becomes narrow and your blood can’t easily flow into the next chamber or blood vessel. Your heart has to work harder to pump blood through.
- Valve regurgitation (also known as valve incompetence or a leaky valve) – this is when your valve doesn’t close properly and blood can leak backwards.
There are four chambers in your heart and the valves make sure that the blood flows through them in one direction.
The two large blood vessels that leave the heart also have valves to make sure that the blood does not go back into the heart once it has been pumped out.
What happens if a valve becomes diseased or damaged?
A diseased or damaged valve can affect the flow of blood in two ways:
If the valve does not open fully, it will obstruct or restrict the flow of blood. This is called valve stenosis or narrowing. This can put extra strain on your heart, making it pump harder to force the blood past the narrowing.
If the valve does not close properly, it will allow blood to leak backwards. This is called valve incompetence or regurgitation or a leaky valve.
This can put extra strain on your heart and may mean that your heart has to do extra work to pump the required volume of blood.
What causes heart valve disease?
The main causes of heart valve disease are:
- being born with an abnormal valve or valves (congenital heart disease)
- having had rheumatic fever
- cardiomyopathy – a disease of the heart muscle
- damage to the heart muscle from a heart attack
- getting older
- a previous infection with endocarditis.
What are the symptoms of heart valve disease?
You may not experience any symptoms but some of the common symptoms are:
- being out of breath
- swelling of the ankles and feet
- being unusually tired.
How is heart valve disease diagnosed?
You may be visiting your doctor because you are experiencing some of the symptoms listed above.
Or you may not have any symptoms but your doctor has said that they can hear a murmur (an unusual sound) when they listen to your heart. A murmur does not always mean that there is a problem with your heart as people with normal hearts may also have murmurs.
Your doctor may suggest that you have further tests to see how well your heart is working. The most common test is an echocardiogram.
How is heart valve disease treated?
You may not need any treatment at all but your doctor may ask you to come back in a year’s time for review, or if your symptoms get worse.
Most valve problems can be treated using medicines or by valve heart surgery. Your treatment will depend on the cause of your problem and the effect that it is having on your heart.